Founded in 2017, the team of Twisted Ramble Games has set a clear goal for itself: to create games with well-crafted narratives about stigmatized topics in a colourful way. How they do that, what inspires them and what the education landscape in Berlin looks like, the three founders of the studio Kerstin Schütt, Verena Hetsch and Sandra Sponagel tell us in our interview.
Congratulations on your win at Deutscher Entwicklerpreis. As a Berlin-based studio you snatched the trophy for Young Developers that is funded by North Rhine-Westphalia. What does the win mean to you and for your studio?
Thank you! To us it means that our work is getting noticed and that we're on the right track. As we're all in our 30s now it's also quite flattering to still count as Young Developers :). But joking aside we were really happy and are very grateful that with the price comes money to spend on travel costs and we'll also get tickets to exhibitions or conferences. That helps us tremendously to promote Duru.
You all studied game-related subjects in Berlin. What is your take on the education landscape in the capital? Were you well-prepared when leaving university?
During our Game Design studies we basically completed a small game project every semester. That was a great preparation and we also learned that we worked well as a team without financial stakes involved. Being out of university and seeing what the newer students learn and create it seems education is getting better by the year! So we're very optimistic that Game Design education in Berlin is on a great way. Even when it comes to the boring business side our university had a summer school program to cover the basics of taxes, book keeping and all that fun stuff.
But still there are some specific things that nobody can you prepare for when funding a studio. But so far we didn't encounter anything we couldn't solve one way or another. So to everybody who wants to found their own studio but is scared: it's okay not to know everything right from the start, nobody does. What matters is that you are willing to overcome those hurdles.
What advantages does a city like Berlin offer when founding your own studio?
Berlin has quite a few programs both for game studios but also start-ups in general. We started out with the Start-Up Stipendium which is a one-year-scholarship that covers living costs while you work on your project and your overall business where we received coaching that was focused on building up our company. Furthermore, we applied for the IBB Coaching Bonus that connects you with a coach for specific areas of expertise. Our coach was Ruth Lemmen who helped us with her knowledge of the German games industry and with her vast network. There is also the regional fund, the Medienboard Berlin Brandenburg that supports game projects as well, and programs like the Gründungsbonus among others by the IBB.
You're not only well covered in terms of financials in Berlin. There are a lot of indie studios and events to get in contact with them. Our favorite was the Talk&Play that was held in the Games Science Center. We were really sad that it stopped. The pandemic put a hard break on events like these, also the exhibitons in Berlin, like the Amaze or EGX. We can't wait for them to come back and get to know new developers and players!
Please, tell us more about your first game Duru.
Duru is a game about mole rats and depression. It is a colorful 2D Puzzle adventure in which you play as Tuli, a small mole rat with a dark companion only visible to her. Her friends are not able to see it and thus misinterpret the changes in Tulis behavior and some involuntarily do things that make her feel worse. But there are also those who don't give up on her, keep reaching out to her even though Tuli can't always find the strength to accept these help offers. Duru is a story about insecurities, friendship and how small acts of kindness can make a big difference to someone suffering from depression.
What choices did you make in terms of game design to cover the topic of depression?
To represent depression we use an AI companion we call Bel. As Tuli players can paint objects to solve puzzles by placing them on buttons or using them to reach higher areas. Bel is manipulating those efforts by shoving those painted objects around or simply eating them. Players have to work extra hard or extra smart to deal with this manipulative companion. They can't ever leave Bel behind either - just as you can't outrun a mental illness. So again you have to take extra steps to make sure this creature can always follow Tuli.
Bel also serves as a story telling device. In the game it is shown that the negative thoughts Tuli is suffering from and her changed perception of herself and the world are caused by Bel. Through picture dialog and thought bubbles we get insight into how Tuli's view of the world changes. Through a visual connection we always point out the thoughts that are there places by Bel and thus are a symptom of Tuli's depression.
How do you program an AI that works with and against the players?
With lots of patience and a lot of testing! It was important to ensure that Duru doesn't become "Companion Quest - The Game". Our AI companion is the antagonist of the game while usually companions are helpful in games. It's a joy to see players react to the first time when Bel pushes a stone that was placed to activate a button. For this sort of concept to work it is important to ensure that the companions behavior becomes predictable so players have the chance to learn and work with it. Some puzzles require players to anticipate Bels behavior.
Why are video games predestined to make stigmatized topics like mental illness perceptible?
Game mechanics are a unique story telling tool that can be taken advantage of when dealing with topics that are harder to grasp. They react directly to the actions of the players which means direct feedback. When learning about something new direct feedback is necessary. And this new knowledge doesn't need to be defined as a hard skill like mastering the game. It can also be noticing that you can't outrun this dark creature or learning that other characters don't react to it because they can't see it. Through those two things you already learned the principle of an invisible illness on a very intuitive level. Stigmatized topics like mental illness can be approached by conveying principles like that through play. It's also less scary to have this as a starting point and then build up on it with more explicit knowledge.
Your stories are "based on expert knowledge". Who do you work with and how did the story of Duru come to life?
Duru started out as an idea about making a colorful, non-depressing game about depression. One of our goals was to raise awareness about what depression is and how it affects people. The other one was to show helpful behaviors so you have some ideas on what to do and not to do when a loved one is fighting with depression. With this goals in mind we created a concept. We wanted to have an inviting, colorful world and cute characters to contrast the dark topic of depression. Damaraland Mole Rats are as far away from human daily life as you can get, yet they're oddly similar as well: every mole rat has their job to do and they have a social structure.
Bel, the representation of Tulis Depression, was there from the start. At the beginning we drew knowledge from Kerstins own experiences with depression and her therapy. We used resources provided by organizations like the Deutsche Depressionshilfe and Deutsche Depressionliga. They both have amazing material on their website and also some experience reports. In our circle of friends we had a therapist who talked with us about our concept to make ensure it's accuracy. Along the way we got to know more psychologists interested in Duru which showed to us that we're on the right track.
It's always important to point out that Duru is not a therapy game. It is there to help people understand what a depression can look like, so they can regocnize it in themselfs and get help or learn how to help those who suffer from it. Knowing this not only helps being more empathic towards people with depression it also works against feeling helpless: if your friend or family member has a hard day with their depression you now know that these seemingly small acts of kindness and help can make a big difference.
When talking about 2D-platformers that cover mental illness, the game Celeste comes to mind. Was the game by publisher Matt Makes Games an inspiration for you? Apart from the obviously different pace, what are similarities and differences between Duru and Celeste? What other games do you find inspiring?
We got asked that a lot! :D We didn't know Celeste at the time we started working on Duru but we love the game! Having the invisible illness made visible is a big similarity of our games. Also how the companion is working with and against players. The difference might be that Bel is constantly there, even when it sometimes gets smaller. We also show very directly that Bel is an illness and the cause of Tulis dark thoughts and self doubts. There is no dialog between the two like we have in Celeste.
Kerstin likes to mention "The Cat Lady" when she talks about serious topics in games. It's a very different approach as a 2D Horror Point&Click though. It contains the topics of depression, suicide and death in general. The protagonist is a woman who basically wants to die but can't and her companion is a woman who wants to live but can't due to cancer. This dynamic alone makes the game very interesting.
"What Remains of Edith Finch" is also a game about the various deaths in a family and although most of them are very tragic the game manages to be light-hearted in it's general nature and that is just and amazing accomplishment.